Alison Bentley interviewed singer-songwriter/guitarist Sarah Gillespie and previews the Sarah Gillespie Quartet’s gigs at Pizza Express Dean Street on the 10th and 11th July with Gilad Atzmon, Kit Downes, Ben Bastin, and Enzo Zirilli.
Singer-songwriter/guitarist Sarah Gillespie’s favourite jazz singer is Louis Armstong. Her new album Glory Days covers his version of St. James Infirmary. ‘As soon as he opens his mouth I’m floored by him.’ Her version has some Armstrong grittiness, with Gilad Atzmon’s keening clarinet weaving in with the voice. Gillespie has a distinctively irreverent take on it: ‘…the protagonist in the song sees his woman dead and then immediately – the narcissist- he starts thinking about his own funeral, and that just cracks me up- “When I die please put me in this particular outfit, with gold hanging off,” and he wants a party..’ Gillespie loves Billie Holiday too, and has some of her melancholy bluesy tone. ‘I’m told I have a lot of blues in me, and listen to really old vintage kind of stuff, like Robert Johnson and Bessie Smith…a lot of the jazz musicians I work with are really into great songs. Enzo (drummer Enzo Zirilli) is really a Beatles fanatic, for example.’ Her pianist is Kit Downes, who’s into the Delta Blues. ‘…he`s into loads of different things…he`s got a lot of humour and warmth in him and his music. It`s a great experience playing with him…’
Gillespie doesn’t call herself a jazz singer, but surrounds herself with jazz musicians: ‘I’ve always been a singer songwriter, gigging, writing songs on my guitar, and when I struck up a friendship with Gilad, I already had my double bass player Ben Bastin working with me. Then Gilad became my MD and producer and, for my first album, bought in Asaf Sirkis on drums. Gilad, of course, was playing with me too. I felt an immediate affinity with jazz musicians that I hadn’t felt with any other musicians before. It may be partly because I’m musically illiterate, and I rely on their literacy, but also the electric spirit in great jazz, the incredible feeling and intuition. I’m a songwriter so there is a shape and structure there, but still within those constraints, the music can catch fire in different ways. It gives my gigs a bit of an edge.’
‘When I paint I always listen to modern jazz- Thelonious Monk or Coltrane, or Charlie Parker, and I listen to Gilad as well.’ Atzmon has been a huge influence, and has produced all of Gillespie’s albums. On Glory Days he plays, accordion, saxes, clarinet, piano and guitar too. When they first worked together, ‘…it was this unique mixture of jazz and blues, and folk and Middle Eastern stuff…’. She had been a shy performer, but Atzmon told her: ‘…offstage you don’t shut up, but onstage you’re like a plank of wood- you’ve got to open up…’ She is a powerful performer. ‘I think it’s just so much fun to jump off the cliff emotionally…I come off stage and nothing could bother me in a million years. It’s very cathartic’.
But Gillespie is self-deprecating about her beautiful folk-blues guitar playing: ‘Postcards to Outer Space, Soldier Song, Oh Mary – they’re all in DADGAD tuning, which means you can just play the whole thing with one hand. Anyone can do it!’ Apart from a couple of collaborations with Atzmon, (and St James Infirmary), Gillespie writes all of her songs. Folk songs and writers have been influential- Dylan, Joni, Cohen, Tom Waits, old Scottish narrative songs, as well as jazz: Fats Waller, and especially the humanity and wit of Cole Porter: ‘…one thing that I think is often missing from contemporary songs is that in the old days people used to write songs about going to work, wars, their communities… Now everyone writes about how they feel. So, for me, Cole Porter was such a breath of fresh air when I heard him first. He’s so funny, I was obsessed.’
Gillespie is also a poet, influenced particularly by the Beat Poets. ‘I’m really fascinated by the difference between words that have one impact on the eye and another impact on the ear- the sounds of words can sometimes explode through the dictionary meaning. I’m dyslexic and I remember the vibe of a word, and its atmosphere and its contours, everything except how to spell it!’ She has an original way of using language. Glory Days is for her late mother, and in Postcards to Outer Space, she writes movingly of the experience of losing her: You walked me into Eden/one Springtime afternoon/The trees blew you kisses/as the hollyhocks swooned/and the pigeons danced flamenco/to an old Fats Waller tune. ‘I knew that was the last time my mother would be sitting in the garden, ever. Each leaf looks like it’s just been dropped down from the gods- the smells, and the birds dancing around- an incredible, intoxicating thing.’
Gillespie can also be very funny. Babies and All That Shit looks at the way women are stereotyped by both men and women: …you’re agog/when I dig into Solzhenitsyn/and then peer into an IKEA catalogue. ‘…you’re supposed to look a certain way and be a certain way- it’s a very strange coding that goes on.’
That’s the kind of eclecticism Gillespie has in her music too. It’s the mix of seriousness and humour, pathos and high energy that makes Sarah Gillespie such a compelling writer and performer.
Sarah Gillespie Quartet: Gilad Atzmon, Kit Downes, Ben Bastin, Enzo Zirilli. Pizza Express Jazz Club, Dean St. Wed Jul. 10th and Thurs Jul. 11th 2013
Tickets for the 10th HERE
Tickets for the 11th HERE